No. 9 (Bad) Dream

The Republican presidential candidates had their ninth debate last night, in Greenville, South Carolina.  It was a train wreck.

Donald Trump dominated because he was willing to be even more rude and bombastic and bizarre than he has even been before.  He was like Trump, squared.  With his florid face neatly matching the red backdrop, Trump routinely interrupted and talked over other candidates, called people liars, made sophomoric snide remarks, and actually voiced the paranoid theory that the administration of George W. Bush lied about weapons of mass destruction in order to engineer the Iraq War.  Trump’s inability to give any specifics on what he would do to deal with any policy issue — other than hire “top men,” build a wall, and engage in trade wars — was more exposed than it has ever been before.

Republican U.S. presidential candidate businessman Donald Trump speaks at the Republican U.S. presidential candidates debate sponsored by CBS News and the Republican National Committee in GreenvilleI wonder when, or whether, Trump voters will awaken from their dream and realize that this ill-mannered, poorly informed, red-faced yeller is not suited to be our President and represent our nation in communicating with foreign leaders.  Last night Trump displayed, over and over again, a temperament that is unfit for high office, but his supporters have given his antics a pass before.  Perhaps the best evidence of how angry and marginalized Trump voters are is that they are willing to support Trump even after he obviously embarrasses himself.

Among the rest of the candidates there was a whiff of desperation in the air.  Campaign money has been spent down, and candidates feel that now is the time to step out and make their mark.  After South Carolina the field is likely to be winnowed further, and the logical person to go is Dr. Ben Carson, who really should have been winnowed out already. Carson is more well-mannered than Trump — of course, a caveman would be more well-mannered than Trump — but he appears to have only a tenuous grasp on some issues and seems to be wholly ill-suited, by training and knowledge, to serve as President.

I thought Marco Rubio won last night’s bad dream of a debate, by staying above the fray on the Trump sniping and giving thoughtful, cogent answers to a number of questions.  I thought the brouhaha about Rubio repeating himself in the last debate was overblown by the media — every politician up there repeats the same lines, routinely — but in any case last night’s performance should lay to rest the silly notion that Rubio is some programmed robot.  I thought Ted Cruz fared poorly, and Jeb Bush and John Kasich had their moments.  Kasich is still trying to follow the “Kasich lane” and is relentlessly staying on message as the positive candidate, while occasionally throwing in classic Midwestern phrases like “jeez o pete” and “dollars to doughnuts.”  It’s not clear whether that will sell south of the Mason-Dixon line, but Kasich has, at least, been very effective in staking out his own, unique persona among the remaining candidates.

We get to take a break until the next debate, which will be held on February 25 in Houston, Texas.  That’s good, because we need one.

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The Kasich Lane

In the most recent Republican presidential debate in Iowa, Ohio Governor John Kasich commented that the path to nomination had an establishment lane, an anti-establishment lane, and the “Kasich lane.”  It was a bold statement from a candidate who is but a blip in the Iowa polls, and Kasich was immediately mocked in some quarters with tweets about the “Kasich lane” that featured vehicles on fire and overturned cars.

plymouth-town-hall-9-360x276Kasich’s quest for the presidency is a quixotic one, and he’s not been afraid to follow his own, unique approach to trying to win the nomination.  This past weekend, while all of his fellow Republican candidates were in Iowa, the Ohio governor was in New Hampshire, holding still more town hall events.   He’s clearly staking his campaign on a good showing in the Granite State.  And where other Republicans treat the New York Times like an abhorrent, unclean thing, he was happy to get that newspaper’s Republican endorsement — even if the endorsement first castigated the other candidates for the Republican nomination and then described Governor Kasich as “the only plausible choice for Republicans tired of the extremism and inexperience on display in this race.”

During the campaign, Governor Kasich hasn’t been afraid to say things that are, well, different from what you normally hear during Republican primaries, where candidates typically want to present themselves as tough and resolute.  He’s described himself as the “Prince of Light and Hope.”  He admitted recently that, in his hotel room, he thought about the endorsements he has received and cried, because “It’s amazing to come from where I came from and have these wonderful things said about me.”

In the Republican debates, he’s been the guy at one far end of the stage, not getting a lot of air time and giving answers that always seem to refer to his production of a balanced budget when he was chair of the U.S. House of Representatives Budget Committee.  Unlike other candidates, his debate answers seem to be completely unscripted — so much so that some people have joked that when he gets a question, it’s time to take a bathroom break.

It’s impossible to know at this point how Governor Kasich will fare with New Hampshire voters, but you have to give him props for charting, and sticking to, his own course — whether you call it the “Kasich lane” or not.  It’s a pretty unconventional approach to winning the nomination of a party that usually seems to relish the conventional.

Time For A New Debate Format

Kish suggested we watch last night’s Republican debate.  Against my better judgment, I agreed.  I should have heeded my judgment, I think.

I’m not a fan of these sprawling debates for a lot of reasons, but the first one hit me as soon as the debate began:  I just don’t like the idea of the moderators picking one person to answer a question about a given topic, and I don’t like the candidates’ ability to not answer the question.  So when the moderator began the debate by asking Ted Cruz about the economy (why Cruz?) and Cruz launched instead into an obviously prepared speech about the ten American sailors captured by Iran, it set my teeth to grinding immediately.

GOP Presidential Candidates Debate In Myrtle BeachThis is a format destined for disaster on a stage with seven candidates hoping to get air time.  At first the candidates act politely and hold their fire as one of their competitors gets to address a juicy topic, but eventually they can’t help themselves and start talking very loudly so that they get to weigh in and get their faces on TV again.  There’s no meaningful way to discipline candidates who go off topic, either.  What are you going to do, tell one of them that they don’t get to respond for the rest of the debate because they didn’t answer a question?  If that rule had been applied last night, basically every candidate would have been silenced long before the debate’s official end.

If I had my choice, you’d start one of these pre-primary debates with opening statements by each of the candidates, so they could vent their canned speeches and you’d at learn about whatever topics were of most importance to them.  I’d establish the order by picking names out of a hat.  Then, once those preliminaries are out of the way, ask a question about a topic and have each candidate respond to the same question.  So long as the question dealt with an important topic, and was not of the “if you were a tree, what kind of tree would you want to be” variety, the candidates themselves would discipline each other to stick to the subject, the way Chris Christie did last night when neither Cruz nor Rubio answered a question about entitlements.  You couldn’t blow off an important topic without the next person in line immediately criticizing you for dodging it.

And I suppose time-limit buzzers are inevitable, especially when seven politicians are on one stage, but they give the debates an unfortunate game show quality.  And, as a candidate’s answer proceeds, I find myself anticipating the buzzer rather than paying much attention to the latter part of the candidate’s response.  The candidates blow right through the buzzers, anyway.  I’d rather have the moderator politely tell the candidate that their time has expired.

Who won last night’s debate?  Beats me.  I thought Trump really zinged Cruz on Cruz’s ill-advised dismissal of “New York values,” recalling how New Yorkers pulled together and moved forward after 9/11 and leaving Cruz to do nothing but keep a frozen smile on his face and no doubt think, inwardly, that he had just taken a self-inflicted wound.   I don’t think those kinds of point-scoring exchanges ultimately mean much in a multi-candidate field, but I do think that, with all the problems we are facing, we don’t need politicians who make cheap appeals to regionalism and pit one part of the country against another.  I was glad to see Cruz take a haymaker.

As for the rest of the debate, Trump obviously has no real substance behind the catch phrases and bloviating, but the other candidates can’t quite figure out how to deal with him.  It’s like they’re trying to climb over each other while hoping that some day, somebody will vote Trump off the island, while Trump stands at the center stage lectern, scowling.  They can’t figure out why people are going for Trump and I can’t, either.

Newtered

Today South Carolina Republicans vote in their state’s presidential primary.  Polls indicate it is a two-man race between Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich.

Gingrich apparently has been given a boost by the most recent Republican candidates debate.  Gingrich was asked about the recent comments of his ex-wife, who said he asked that she agree to an “open marriage” in which he could have both a wife and a mistress.  In response, Gingrich lashed out at the questioner and the media, generally, for focusing on irrelevancies and making the first question in a presidential debate one about his long-ago personal affairs.  The audience of Republicans, who apparently hate the media with every fiber of their beings, ate it up and gave Gingrich a standing ovation.

I don’t care about Gingrich’s past personal behavior — but I also don’t see why his set-piece smackdown of a question about it is such a great thing.  Some rock-ribbed conservatives seem to despise the media and love to see them publicly criticized for any reason; I don’t share that view.

To me, the little diatribe was an obvious, planned bit of political theater, and the fact that Gingrich palled around with the questioner after the debate just confirms it.  Gingrich has deep roots and connections in the Washington social milieu of politicians, lobbyists, reporters, and consultants.  When he gave his little angry performance, his inside-the-Beltway buddies no doubt leaned back, nodded to each other, and agreed that Gingrich was just doing the necessary political thing, knowing the rubes would eat it up — and they did.

Gingrich’s debate diatribe may well win South Carolina for him, but I think his performance really exposes him as just another calculated politician.

About That $10,000 Bet . . . .

I’ll say it up front — I didn’t watch the Republican candidates’ debate Saturday night.  (Seriously, a debate on Saturday night?  Are they consciously trying to make Republicans seem lonely and pathetic?)

Yesterday, it was obvious that the media thought the big story from the debate was that Mitt Romney bet Rick Perry $10,000 about the accuracy of one of Perry’s charges.  Did the media care about the accuracy of Perry’s charge?  Nah!  No, the story was about the size of the bet.  The media, you see, has concluded that the comment about the $10,000 bet shows that Romney is ridiculously rich and out of touch with the average American.  Why, the media says disapprovingly, for most Americans, $10,000 is equivalent to several months of their salary!  That is, if the American is lucky enough to even have a job at all in our dismal economy.

And therein, I think, lies the rub.  In the past, when things were going well for our nation, we could chuckle and enjoy these media-made controversies, even if they ended up costing the unfortunate public figure their credibility and their career.  But now, the stakes are too high.  We can’t afford to toss aside candidates because of silly stuff.  Doesn’t it tell you something when the media coverage is not about the substance of any candidate’s statements about the issues of the day — but rather is about some sideshow moment?

I’m not saying that Mitt Romney knows how to end our economic predicament — but I do know that, if he does know the answer, I don’t care how rich he is or how many $10,000 bets he’d like to make.  His comment about a $10,000 bet is no more disqualifying than the fact that President Obama and his family have taken vacations that most Americans couldn’t afford.  It’s time to ignore the ginned up media storms, focus on the substance, and try to figure out which candidate — Democrat or Republican — offers the best way forward.

Rick Perry And The King’s Speech

We watched the Republican presidential candidate debate last night while we were waiting to go pick up Richard.  Every time we saw Rick Perry try to express his thoughts on the question presented we cringed.  It was painful — like the witnessing the struggles of stuttering King George VI to address the crowd at the All-England games.

Perry obviously has been a very successful governor of one of our largest states.  How, then, can he be so awful in debates?  He just can’t seem to frame a coherent thought and express it clearly.  It’s as if all of the buzz phrases and coaching points and planned gestures are dammed up in his head, pent up, and ready to tumble out in a rush if they could just find an outlet.  You can’t help but feel sorry for the guy — and I’m not sure that pity is the kind of emotion you want to generate if you are running for President.

Kish and I loved The King’s Speech, but we’re not ready to see it played out in miniature every time the Republican presidential candidates have a debate.

Will Anyone Watch, And Does Anyone Care?

Tonight the eight declared Republican candidates for President will debate in Iowa.  The debate is nationally televised on Fox News.  Will anyone watch, and does anyone care?

The lead-up to the debate is filled with the kind of phony urgency that sets my teeth on edge.  The Reuters story, for example, notes that the debate is two days “before an Iowa straw poll that will test the strength of their campaigns” and breathlessly adds:  “With less than six months remaining before Iowa holds the first presidential nominating contest in 2012, time is running short for candidates to begin making up ground.”  So, let me get this straight:  the debate may affect the outcome of a non-binding “straw poll” being taken six months before delegates will be selected?  Could someone explain again why this debate is so crucial?

The constant, creeping advancement of the campaign season is always ludicrous, but this year it is offensive.  Our economy is in the dumper.  Our national credit rating just got cut.  We’re fighting in ill-defined conflicts across the globe.  Millions of Americans are out of work.  Our budget deficit is out of control.  In short, we’ve got lots of important stuff to worry about — much more important than whether Michele Bachmann’s showing makes her the presumed Iowa front-runner or whether Rick Santorum should throw in the towel.  At this point, I couldn’t care less.